Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/An artist's ramble along the line of the Picts' wall - Part 1

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It was about the end of August in the year 18— that my friend H—— and I passed by the good ship City of Hamburgh from the Thames to coaly Tyne, and landing at Wallsend, a place of fame wherever a sea-coal fire is appreciated, we trod Northumbrian ground, for the first time on the part of H——, but not so on mine, for there are few portions of that picturesque and historic land with which I am unacquainted. The object of our journey was that of a sketching tour, H—— having in view the wild moorland scenery of Tynedale, I, the vestiges of antiquity in which the county abounds. With those objects in contemplation, we resolved to take the line of the Picts’ wall for our guidance, and accordingly commenced our walk at Wallsend, the eastern extremity of the wall, for it would appear that the Roman engineer did not hold it necessary to carry this great work to the German Ocean, which washes the rocky base of Tynemouth Priory, about four miles to the eastward—a space commanded by the position of this extremity of the wall. This site is recognised as the Segedunum of the Romans, and traces of the station are still visible on the spot called the Well or Wall Laws, about six yards south of the engines of Wallsend colliery. In Horsley’s time there were distinct traces of the ramparts of this work, and evident remains of two turrets at the western and eastern corners of the station, and another at the south-west corner. A wall and other works have extended to the river, where the remains of a quay and the traces of a causeway in communication with it mark the spot where, upwards of sixteen centuries ago, the Roman vessels loaded or discharged their cargoes, long ere the coal trade was dreamed of, and where now the staithes appertaining to the waggon-ways of Bigge’s Main, Fawdon, Cox Lodge, and Wallsend collieries render the scene a right busy and a black one. The name of this station is derived by Wallis, the historian of Northumberland, from the Roman seges,—corn—and the British dun, a hill, and he conceives that here was a magazine for corn shipped from the more southern provinces of the empire. Although I have said that Wallsend is recognised as Segedunum, there is no direct evidence by which it can be exactly identified with the station so named in the Notitia Imperii, a list of the several military officers and magistrates of the eastern and western empires, with the names of the places at which they were stationed, probably composed about the end of the reign of the Emperor Theodosius the younger, before the Romans were compelled by home disturbances to abandon this island. The sixty-ninth section of this document contains a list of the prefects and tribunes under the command of the Honourable the Duke of Britain. That portion of the list which refers to the stations between the Tyne and the Solway is headed Item per lineam valli—also along the line of the wall, and contains references which the wall-pilgrim may consult with advantage.

Before setting forth, being anxious to tread upon sure ground, we cast about in order to obtain the best information for our guidance in identifying the several stations, and above all, to make a sure start; we therefore consulted the volume of Dr. Bruce,[1] the latest and best of the wall guides. The Segedunum of the Notitia immediately follows the title per lineam valli, but the point is at which end of the line to place it, to discover, indeed, whether we are to proceed with the names set down in the list from east to west along the line, or the contrary way. “The stations on this list are manifestly,” as Horsley observes, “set down in some order, so that if we ascertain the identity of some of them, we may form a pretty correct estimate of the position of the intermediate, or neighbouring stations. When in the remains of a station inscribed stones are found bearing the name of a cohort mentioned in the Notitia, the inference is natural, in most cases at least, that the Imperial Notitia will furnish us with a key to the ancient designation of the station, and the argument is perfect when the designations thus obtained correspond exactly in the order of the places as given in the Notitia.” Dr. Bruce points to an example in the station of Chesters, on the North Tyne, where several slabs have been found bearing the name of the second ala or wing of the Astures.




“Now as the Notitia represents this ala or troop of cavalry to have been stationed at Cilurnum, the probability is that the camp on the west bank of the North Tyne is the Cilurnum of Roman Britain.

“Immediately following the second wing of the Astures at Cilurnum on the Notitia list is the first cohort of the Batavians at Procolita. Now the station immediately west of Chesters is Carrawburgh, and here a slab and an altar have been found inscribed with the name of this very cohort. The conclusion is natural—Carrawburgh is the Procolita of the Notitia.” In this way a succession of stations have been identified from Segedunum (Wallsend) to Amboglanna (Bird Oswald) in Cumberland; but here, from the land being more under cultivation, traces are less evident, and no inscriptions have been found to identify the stations westward of this point. No inscribed stones of any consequence have been found at Wallsend, although it is conjectured many have been worked into the masonry of the colliery for which the station served as a quarry. But this deficiency was in a measure made good by the discovery, at Tynemouth, where it is supposed there was a Roman fort, of an altar, the inscription on which reads as follows:—




From Wallsend the wall ran westward, and, passing Walker, i. e., the town by the wall, and climbing Byker Hill, it proceeded to the bank overlooking the Ouse Burn, a stream which runs into the Tyne on the eastern boundary of Newcastle, where there was a castellum or exploratory tower. Descending the hill from thence, where the fosse is still to be traced, it crossed the burn and reached the Sally Port-gate of the mediæval walla of Newcastle, where there was a castellum, and crossing the top of the hill, called the Wall Knoll, it passed a small stream called Pandon Dean, by an arch near the Stock Bridge. Ascending another hill it crossed the Lort Burn by an arch, and reached the site now occupied by St. Nicholas’ Church, and formed the rampart of the next station.

Newcastle—the Pons Elii of the Notitia—has afforded a position of great strength and command. It is supposed to have taken its Roman appellation from the Emperor Hadrian, who was of the Ælian family. He rebuilt Jerusalem and bestowed on it the name of Ælia Capitolina.

Evidences that the old bridge stood upon a Roman foundation were evident on its being rebuilt after the great flood in 1771. The wall formed the northern rampart of Pons Elii. Horsley considered that each side of this station measured six chains, and that its east wall ran at right angles from the wall where the St. George’s Porch of St. Nicholas’ Church is situated, and continued along the brow of the hill—at the part called the Head of the Side—till intercepted by the earthen rampart called Hadrian’s Vallum, near the east-end of Bailey Gate. The old castle is conceived by Horsley to have stood a little more to the south-east than the present castle, erected in the reign of William the Conqueror, and from which the town took its name of Newcastle. On the brink of a height looking down upon the bridge, masses of strong masonry and a chaos of Roman ruins were found when the ground was cleared for building the present Moot Hall; likewise a Roman doorway, walled up, a well, and a quantity of the débris common to Roman stations. It is highly probable that the new castle was built from the stones of its predecessor; and Brand expresses his belief that inscriptions belonging to the station of Pons Elii lie concealed in the walls of the present castle.

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The Wall and Vallum near Heddon-on-the-Wall.

From St. George’s Porch the wall stretched through the garden of the vicarage and intersected the line of the town wall a little to the north of the west gate, then mounting the rising ground it reached the station of Condercum. There are plans of this station, and of the Roman hypocaust, found near it, in Brand’s “History of New castle,” drawn in 1751, by Robert Shafts, Esq. Some altars and inscriptions were found here; one of them, discovered in 1669, is referred by Horsley to the time of the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. This altar is dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, who presided over mines, and this has led to a supposition that the coal seam of this neighbourhood had been wrought by Roman hands. Coins, bronzes, and other Roman relics, have, from time to time, been found here. For nineteen miles out of Newcastle, the Carlisle road runs chiefly upon the foundation of the wall. At East Denton the wall becomes visible in a fragment thirty-six feet long, having three courses of facing stones on one side, and four on the other. Beyond Denton Burn, the wall, turf-covered, travels with the road, but apart, for some distance, and here the vallum is very prominent. Near Denton Hall, formerly the residence of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, a mound indicates the site of a Mile Castle. Before crossing Walbottle Dean, the vallum appears very distinctly, skirting the road which here runs upon the wall again, and as it approaches Heddon-on-the-Wall, the fosse appears on the right of the wall, and the vallum, boldly prominent on the left. Here a considerable length of the wall, with four courses of facing stones, is very perfect. At this part the ditch or fosse is carried through freestone rock. About a mile to the north of Heddon-on-the-Wall are some tumuli. Past the eighth mile-stone is Rutchester—probably a corruption of Roodchester, from a rood or cross. This station is recognised as the Vindobala of the Notitia. The wall intersects its east and west ramparts. It includes an area of nearly five acres. At an ancient stronghold which has been converted into a farm-house, Hutton, in his famous Wall Pilgrimages, experienced a churlish reception, as he considered; perhaps it was only a manifestation of the canny north country way—kindly but cautious—for he himself admits that his travelling appearance was not prepossessing; but he has his fling in the following homely verse:


I saw old Sir at dinner sit,
Who ne’er said “Stranger, take a bit,”
Yet might, although a poet said it,
Have saved his beef and raised his credit.


The above tower has the repute of being haunted by a tricksy, but not malevolent sprite called Silky. The tower is reported to have been raised by William of Welton, a worthy whose strength is still proverbial in those parts. One of his feats of prowess is said to have been exhibited when age had deprived him of sight. This blind Samson, sitting outside the tower, called a plough-boy to him, and asked him to let him feel his arm, as he wished to find what sort of bones folk had now-a-days. The lad, apprehensive of his grip, held forth instead of his arm the iron plough coulter, which Will forthwith snapped in twain, pensively observing: “Men’s banes are nought but girsels (gristles) to what they were in my day.”

Near Halton Castle is the station of Halton Chesters, the Roman Hunnum. An aqueduct of about three-quarters of a mile in length was opened out, and it is remarkable that it lay on the north, or hostile side of the wall, where the supply of water was liable to be cut off by the enemy. The foundations of a building were likewise found one hundred and thirty-two feet in length, containing eleven apartments, the first of which was forty-three feet long, and twenty wide. It is conjectured to have been the apartment appropriated to persons waiting their turn for the bath, the other rooms being for the hot, cold, tepid, and sweating baths used by the Romans; who, doubtless, derived health and vigour from their scrupulous attention to clealiness. The greater part of these interesting remains have been demolished and the station itself is nearly concealed by an overgrowth of vegetation.

A little further on, the road, which here travels on the site of the wall, is carried over a small stream, by a culvert of Roman masonry four feet in width, and the same in height.

Beyond the sixteenth mile-stone, on the ascent of the hill of Stagshaw Bank, the ancient Watling Street crosses the road at right angles. This road, planned for the promotion of intercourse between the northern and southern parts of Britain, appears, in many parts, very perfect. A fort called Portgate formerly stood here to guard a passage through the wall, but no traces of it remain. We had walked thus far along the line of the wall, noting its features as we went along; but before proceeding further it was agreed that we should stay a while, both at Corbridge and Hexham, in order to make a survey of those places and their surroundings. We, therefore, returned upon our track as far as Halton Castle, and proceeded, passing Aydon Castle, romantically situated on the edge of the steep and wooded banks of a stony brook; and, anon, we found ourselves snugly established at the Angel inn at Corbridge, in the full enjoyment of a goodly refection, being a compromise between tea and dinner.

After this refreshment, we sauntered by the margin of the Tyne, accompanied by our intelligent host, to see the vestiges of the Roman bridge which crossed the river, about half a mile to the west of Corbridge. The water being low, these remains were clearly visible, consisting of large masonry with luis holes bound together by strong leaden cramps, but the traces of the station with which the bridge communicated have become almost entirely obliterated.
Bust of Mercury built into the wall of a cottage at Corbridge.
Camden conjectures this to have been the Curia Ottadinarum, noted by Ptolemy, but Horsley makes it the Corstopitum of Antoninus. It is said, by tradition, that King John had the area of this station dug up in all directions, in a search for treasure which, as he believed, lay buried there. On sallying forth the following morning, H—— was struck by the odd appearance of a small bust of Roman sculpture, apparently—by the appurtenance of the caduceus—a head of Mercury. This had been built in over the door of a cottage. It was painted black with a white neck-tie. While he stood, with his hands in his trousers pockets, absorbed in the contemplation of this eccentric image, the owner of the cottage stepped out, and said:

“Ye’ll be admirin’ ma piper?”

“Piper?” quoth H——.

“Ay, just a piper; dunna ye see the chaunter ower his shouther?”

“But what in the world made you paint him in that way?”

“What for? why to make him look bonny. Aw call him the Black Prince; ay, money a ane stops to look at ma Black Prince: some say he’s King Brutus. Why, man, the Duke, hisself, smiled at it, as he walked by.”

When I joined the pair, I suggested that it would be well to get off the paint, but the man grew indignant, vowing he had given the piper a coat of paint every year since he came to the cottage, and we left him. H——, however, as often as he went that way, would stop, and gaze intently on the black abomination, and the solemn abstraction of his look began to impress the iconoclast with a degree of misgiving of which I took advantage to press the removal of the paint, but though evidently shaken, he still refused to give in, until the keeper of a small chemist’s shop opposite, who had joined us, pronounced the talismanic word, “whisky,” in my ear.

“Now,” I said, “just you get off the paint. I will order some stuff from the chemist to wash the Black Prince’s face; ay! and some whisky to wash your own throat when all’s done.”

The victory was gained.

“There’s ma thumb on’t,” he said; and we left him to wash the blackamoor white.

This happy conclusion was effected just as we were departing westward, and when we returned, there was Mercury restored to his original complexion, and our convert standing, with his fingers, which he had burned with the caustic agent used to remove the paint, wrapped in rags, proudly contemplating his performance. Many of the houses in Corbridge exhibit fragments of sculpture and inscribed stones from the Roman station, either worked in promiscuously, or for the sake of decoration. In one house a quern had been worked in the angle of a wall. A Roman eagle composed part of the masonry of a pigsty. Some Roman altars appeared built into the wall of the vicarage, and among the medieval masonry of a peel-tower, at the end of the town, there appeared a large Roman inscribed stone, quite perfect. The church-tower appeared wholly composed of Roman stones. In the churchyard, there is a tower which Camden calls, “a little turret built and inhabited by the vicars.” H—— and I sat down in the evening to draw this tower, from points of view somewhat apart. While I was thus engaged a butcher suddenly stood before me with the head of a black-faced ram, which he had just hewn from the carcass, saying:

“There’s a pictur!”

“Yes,” I quietly observed, “that would please Sir Edwin Landseer.”

“O, your friend, yonder!” he exclaimed. “He shall see it,” and rushing to my unconscious companion, shoved the black and gory trophy under his nose, with a suddenness that well-nigh had the effect of a Medusa’s head upon him, exclaiming:

“There, Sir Edwin! match me that, if you can!”

The Corbridge folk are not possessed of much deference, especially the boys: the latter, whereever we turned, hailed us as the “strange men.” While I was drawing the interior of the tower, which is roofless, I was fairly bombarded by the boys on the outside of the door, which I had secured, with volleys of stones; and when I remonstrated, saying it was very uncivil treatment of a stranger, their spokesman up and said:

“Hoot, aye! we ken nout about civility here; we’re real bad uns, we are!”

Next morning, when at the same task, I saw the large eyes of a brat glowering through a loop-hole, and, after a long silent stare, I heard his wooden clogs clattering over the pavement, he calling: “Eh! they’ve getten the strange man in the lock-up, now!”

It appears the tower is occasionally used as a cage for offenders, but I was told they mostly let themselves out.

We now wended on our way to Hexham, as I was desirous of showing my companion the stately Abbey church and its Saxon crypt constructed of Roman stones, some of them bearing Roman inscriptions. The day after our arrival, being Sunday, we were setting out in order to attend Divine Service, when the handmaiden, who waited on us at the hostel of the White Hart, inquired what we would take for dinner, and volunteered the recommendation of a fool and bacon, at which H——, who had not yet overcome the dialect, looked disconcerted till I explained that a fowl was meant.

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Fortified Vicarage in the Churchyard at Corbridge.

Next day we devoted to a survey of the antiquities of the place, to describe which would require more space than I can here command; but I cannot quit Hexham without mention of an odd illustration of the proverbial inch given and ell taken. In scrambling among some pigsties, that we might get a better view of part of the Abbey church, I was struck by the complacent grunt of a fat hog, in full enjoyment of his dolce far niente, and remarked to his owner, who looked on with the satisfied look of one who beholds a prospect of fat bacon, “Your pig is a true gentleman; he has nothing to do, and he does it.” H—— told me after that the man had said to him, aside, “Sir, your friend made a remarkable observation—particler. He said ma pig was a gentleman, for he had nothing to do, and he didn’t even do that.” Leaving Hexham, we turned back and took up the line of the Wall, where we had left it, at Portgate, and submitted our steps to its guidance. In the plantations on the hill, after passing the seventeenth milestone, the works appear in great boldness, and, just before reaching the eighteenth milestone, we observed the remains of a Mile Castle. And now we began to descend the hill towards the north Tyne, and reached St. Oswald’s Chapel. In a field near to the chapel, called Molds Close, a quantity of bones and fragments of weapons have been turned up, from time to time. According to tradition, a fight was won here, after which England rose in greatness and prosperity; but when another battle shall be won on the same field, her decline will as surely ensue. This prophecy is supposed to have a vague reference to the battle in which King Oswald first raised the standard of the Cross, and vanquished the fierce British chief Cadwallon. In commemoration of this event the convent of Hexham erected the chapel in honour of St. Cuthbert; and the canonised saint Bede, who calls this fight the battle of Heavensfield, says it was fought just north of the Roman wall, and informs us that “It was a custom continued a good while before his time, for the monks of Hagulstad (Hexham), who lived near that place, to go thither every year, on the day before that of his death, and there to say vigils for the health of his soul, and the morning after to offer the sacrifice of the holy oblation, with lauds to him.” A large silver coin or medal of Oswald was found on repairing the chapel. In the grounds of Brunton, still lower down the hill, a remarkably fine fragment of the wall appears. It is seven feet high, and contains nine courses of facing stones entire. At Chollerford, the North Tyne was crossed by a bridge, the remains of which are now in process of excavation, and present a striking example of Roman masonry, being of a very massive character, and finely wrought and jointed. Approaching the bridge from the east, the works are quite perceptible. On the west bank of the river is Walwick Chesters, identified with the Roman Silurnum. Here we look down upon the ground plan of a Roman station, with its narrow streets, at right lines, as we might look upon a plan drawn out upon paper. The station contains an area of upwards of six acres; it is of the customary parallelogram form, the corners being slightly rounded. Between the station and the river are the traces of suburban buildings. Within, and near the middle of the station, is a vaulted chamber, or cell, which is entered by a descent of four steps. At the threshold was found the original door of wood, sheathed with plates of iron, the whole being firmly riveted together with large square nails. The roof is vaulted over, and the side walls incline slightly inwards. Some excavations near the eastern rampart have brought to light a series of eight apartments. A street, three feet wide, increasing to four feet, is met at right angles by another, paved with flag stones, which leads to the entrance of a large apartment, under the floors of which are flues for warming the building, similar to those at Halton Chesters. In one of the rooms a cistern, or bath, was found. From this chamber passages on the right and left lead into apartments, in one of which the statue of a river god—perhaps, it has been surmised, the genius of North Tyne—was found. This figure is much superior to the ordinary pitch of Roman provincial art. Indeed, although carved in a coarse material, it is conceived in a high style of design. A bank, overhanging the river, at a short distance from the station, is conceived, from the discovery of several sepulchral monuments, to have been the Roman cemetery. It is a spot well suited to the quiet and sanctity of death, the west wind sighing through the grove that overshadows it, and the river flowing round the base of the hill towards the most beautiful of its many fine curving sweeps, might sound to the fanciful ear like an everlastingly murmured dirge for the repose of the departed who rest there.

At Walwick Chesters, many fine pieces of sculpture and architectural fragments are preserved, together with a dedicatory inscription of the soldiers of the second wing of the Astures, which appears to have been appended to a temple. This having fallen to decay, was restored by command of Marius Valerianus, under the superintendence of Septimus Nilus, Prefect. This stone has the peculiar interest of having furnished the key by which the succession of stations became identified by collation with the Notitia.

On the summit of Warden Hill, sometimes called Castle Hill, to the south of the Chesters, and near the confluence of the North and South Tyne, there is a circular camp, which comprehends an area of about two acres. The circular form indicates a British stronghold, but it may have been appropriated by the Romans as a lookout post, as it overlooks the country surrounding the station and bridge to a considerable distance. This elevation commands a fine view of the vale of the South Tyne, on whose southern bank the venerable towers of Hexham are conspicuous. Following the works over the hill of Tower Tay, from the summit of which an extensive prospect is obtained, including the groves of Nunwick, and, on the other bank of the North Tyne, Chipchase Castle, the ancient stronghold of the Herons, a bold undulation of hilly country is bounded by the grey peaks of the Cheviot Hills. Near Tower Tay are the remains of a Mile Castle. Here the fosse of the wall and the vallum are hewn out of the solid basalt rock.

The next station, being the seventh, on the Roman line, is Carraw, the Roman Procolita. It was garrisoned by the first Batavian cohort—that which fought with Agricola against Galgacus, in the great battle of the Grampian Hills. A mutilated stone, bearing the word BATAVORUM, was found among its débris. This station is a mere heap of shattered ruins. Leaving Carraw, we have before us a succession of four mountainous ridges which face the north in crests of perpendicular crags, some higher than others, and forming a mass of basalt that crosses the country in a rugged line bearing north by east to the sea at Holy Island. The wall rises boldly as we approach the central portion of the barrier, which, in harmony with the scenery, pursues a more determined course, and presents itself in more imposing masses. Where the wall tops the crown of the crag, the north fosse disappears, and the vallum follows the course of the wall at the bases of the hills. Those inaccessible precipices offer to the north a barrier to which the wall cannot have added strength, and it must have been carried over them chiefly to shelter the guards and sentinels against the bitter northern blast.

On the side of the hill at Sewingshields are the remains of a Mile Castle. From this height, looking northward, a dreary stretch of waste and moss land extends from the base of the crag as far as the eye can reach, while, on the south, the view is rich and extensive, Hexham being clearly visible, nestled in an inflexion of the woody banks of the Tyne. Northward of the crag, there stood a border tower, called Sewingshields Castle, but not a stone remains. It is said to have suggested the idea of Scott’s “Castle of Seven Shields.” A buried treasure, it was believed, lay concealed within its walls.

Seven monarchs’ wealth in that castle lies stow’d,
The foul fiends brood o'er them like raven and toad.
Whoever shall guesten these chambers within,
From curfew till matins, that treasure shall win.

But as there is no longer a chamber to “guesten” within, the adventure is nought, and the prophecy fulfilled.

The waste ridge of Cheviot shall wave with the rye,
Before the rude Scots shall Northumberland fly,
And the flint cliffs of Bambro’ shall melt in the sun,
Before that adventure be peril’d and won.

Among some traditions told by the people hereabout, I select one communicated to Dr. Bruce by Mr. Adam Cranston, Master of Grindon School, relative to an odd plan practised by the Scots of angling for Romans. “The Romans are said to have been remarkably lazy, so much so, that in the hot weather of summer, having almost nothing to do, they lay basking in the sun, on the south side of the wall, almost in a state of torpor. The Scots were in the habit of watching their opportunity, and, throwing hooks with lines attached to them, over the wall, caught the poor Romans by their clothes or flesh, and by this means dragging them to the other side, made them prisoners.”

In some of the local traditions, King Arthur and Queen Guenevra are the hero and heroine. A column of basalt in the neighbouring crag is called King Arthur’s Chair.

Beyond Sewingshields is a gap in the crag, called the Cat Gate, which may have been used by the Romans as a sally-port, when they made a foray on the Scots. Next comes Busy Gap, where the wall, being more upon the level, is greatly exposed, and a provision has been made for increasing its strength by the projection of a triangular rampart to the north. Busy Gap was notorious of yore as the chief resort of border reivers and mosstroopers. To this place of ill repute Camden refers, as “a place infamous for thieving and robbing,” and says, “I could not with safety take the full survey of it (the wall) in this neighbourhood, for the rank robbers thereabout.” In Newcastle, formerly, to call a brother burgess “a Busy Gap rogue,” was a matter liable to the censure of a guild, as is attested by an entry in the books of the Company of Bakers and Brewers of Newcastle-on-Tyne. A custom still kept up in Newcastle is significant of the terms which the townsmen held with those of the more immediate border. At eight o’clock on the eve of the day for holding the annual horse and cattle fair, the great bell of St. Nicholas is tolled.[2] This is called “the thief and reiver bell.” At the close of the fair the bell is again tolled. This custom was formerly intended to intimate a kind of armistice, by virtue of which the Bordermen were to consider themselves free to come and go, unquestioned and scatheless, during the interval between the tollings of the bell.

The next Mile Castle is situated opposite to a farm-house called the Kennel. Hodgson describes it as having, when it came under his notice in 1832, an interior wall on every side, and conjectures that the central area had not been roofed over, but only the space between the double walls. Something similar is observable in the imputed Celtic building of Chun Castle in Cornwall, and the Norman keep of Coningsburgh Castle in Yorkshire, the space between the double walls being reserved probably for dormitories and that in the centre for cooking, eating, and in-door recreation. Housesteads, the Roman Borcovicus, is allowed to be the finest position upon the Roman line. The impulsive Stukeley terms it the Tadmor of Britain; Dr. Bruce, with greater propriety, the British Pompeii. When Stukeley saw this station, the very disorder of its ruins may have had its effect on the imagination; but now, the progress of excavation has created a more intelligible interest in the light thus thrown upon its order and details. The inscriptions, altars, statues, and fragments of sculpture, which raised the admiration of former visitors, are now to be sought for in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle, but the gates, streets, and divisions of the station, so far as the excavations have reached, present a series of details calculated to excite the most lively interest. The four gates of the station have been cleared. They are double, so that the station is only accessible by passing through two lines of defence. The gateways have been closed by heavy two-leaved gates. The jambs and pillars of all the gateways are composed of large and massive stones of rustic masonry, the central pillar, taken at the second course of masonry, measuring six feet square. Between each portal is a large stone on which the gates have closed. On either side are guard-rooms, nearly perfect, with the exception of the roof. At the south gateway and outside the wall of the station there is a building, concerning which H—— and I had some discussion, my notion being that it was the bakery of the station; and while I was trying to prove this, a shrewd looking labourer, who was poking about some débris at hand, observed, “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, its nowther the one thing nor the ’tother of what ye’re talkin’ aboot.”

“Indeed!” I asked, “And pray what may it be?”

“It was just Johnny Armstrang’s malt-kiln,” was the reply of this second Ochiltree.

A little upwards of a century ago Houseteads was possessed by a family of the name of Armstrong, descendants of the famous Johnny, who sold it and the adjacent land for the sum of fifty-eight pounds. The farm now lets at the rate of three hundred pounds of annual rent.

At this suggestion of our new acquaintance, we were induced to view this building with a medieval, rather than a Roman eye, and it became evident that the subject of our inquiry had been no other than the Peele of some reiving Armstrong, consisting of a basement, wherein his cattle were housed, and over this a tower in which he had his abode, and, behind, a kiln in which he dried his corn: for in the days of Border strife, when one man sowed and another reaped, it was not always expedient to leave a crop till it should mature into full ripeness. The compactness with which the streets and houses are packed within the walls of the station indicates the necessity of housing a large body of men in as limited a compass as possible. The houses are very small and the streets exceedingly narrow. One street led from the north to the south gate, which appears to have been crossed by another from the east to the west gate, the centre being marked by a large square column. Traces of more spacious buildings appear in the northern quarter of the station, one of which measures seventy feet in length and eight feet in breadth. This has been, apparently, a chamber for the transaction of public affairs. Two hypocausts have been found within the walls, and one outside the station, by the Knag Burn, a stream which runs to the eastward; in the latter the flues were found to be full of soot. The station of Housesteads includes an area of nearly five acres. The suburbs have been very extensive. A little to the south, extending westwards, the hill-side has been scarped in flights of terraces similar to the hanging vineyards seen in Italy and on the steep sides of Lebanon. A stone-cased well of Roman masonry lies a little to the west of the station, but none has been discovered within its walls. In the Notitia, Borcovicus is the station of the Cohors Prima Tungorum. Inscriptions having reference to this cohort have been found in the station.

J. W. Archer.


  1. The “Notitia” list of stations is printed in Dr. Bruce’s compendious history of the Roman Wall.
  2. The great bell of St. Nicholas still performs one or two other old-fashioned functions. It still tolls the curfew, which, in my recollection, was the signal for a general closing of shops. “The great bell of St. Nicholas Church,” says Brand, “is tolled at twelve o’clock at noon on this day (Shrove Tuesday), shops are immediately shut up, offices closed, and all kinds of business ceases, a sort of little carnival ensuing for the remaining part of the day.” This is called the pancake bell. I believe it is still rung, but the closing of shops has long been discontinued.